By Joby Warrick and Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, March 2, 2008
Iranian documents obtained by the United Nations' nuclear watchdog strongly suggest that Iran was working on a nuclear weapons design as recently as four years ago, U.N. officials disclosed last week in a private briefing.
The documents suggest that Iran's research on nuclear weapons continued for several months after U.S. intelligence officials say the effort was suspended, the International Atomic Energy Agency's top nuclear security expert told diplomats in Vienna, according to notes taken by a participant.
Olli Heinonen, the IAEA's deputy director general, was elaborating on a public report released Feb. 22 that questioned whether Iran had come fully clean about its nuclear past. In the report, the watchdog agency said Tehran had not credibly explained documents that appeared to point to research programs devoted to uranium processing, high explosives and missiles design -- all of which can be used in making nuclear weapons. Iran has denied ever seeking nuclear weapons and has dismissed the documents as fakes.
In the technical briefing Monday with diplomats from IAEA member states, Heinonen offered new details about the Iranian documents, according to notes obtained by The Washington Post. He revealed that the IAEA had collected corroborating evidence, from the intelligence agencies of several countries, that pointed to sophisticated research into some key technologies needed to build and deliver a nuclear bomb.
Some of the documents, for example, described studies on modifying Iran's Shahab missile to allow it to accommodate a large warhead, which would detonate 600 meters above its target. The feature would make sense only if the warhead was nuclear, Heinonen suggested.
Iran now faces a tougher challenge in convincing the world that it has never sought nuclear arms, according to a nuclear weapons expert who reviewed the briefing notes.
"The information is much harder to refute," said David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector and president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security. "It seems to point to work on nuclear weapons -- even if the program wasn't coherent and even if a decision was never made to actually build a weapon."
Iran's U.N. ambassador, Mohammad Khazee, told reporters Thursday that the new allegations being studied by the IAEA are "baseless" and that Iran has never sought to acquire nuclear weapons.
The U.N. Security Council is expected to vote tomorrow on a third resolution imposing travel and financial sanctions on Iranian individuals and institutions. The measures are intended to pressure Tehran into suspending its enrichment of uranium and other nuclear programs that have a potential military use.
A Security Council diplomat said Iran's top envoy to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, reacted angrily to last week's briefing. He said that the documents could have been manufactured by any student who was "paid $100" and that the IAEA had exceeded its mandate as a technical agency by engaging in intelligence activities.